In just over ten days the 2019 Irish local elections will be held for all local authorities in Ireland on Friday, 24 May 2019, this happens on the same day as the 2019 European Parliament election and a referendum easing restrictions on divorce.

Divorce first became legal in Ireland in 1996 but prior to 1914 divorce was rare; it was considered a scandal, confined by expense to the rich, and by legal restrictions requiring proof of adultery or violence to the truly desperate. In fact as a testament to how difficult it was during the first decade of the 20th century, there was just one divorce for every 450 marriages in the UK.

So that made the petition for divorce in 1909 by Shenstone Bishop, a dentist based in Dublin who was a guest in the famous St Ann’s Hydro Hotel during the 1911 census, from his wife, Ethel Malley Bishop nee Curtis, of nearly twenty years all the more remarkable.

While it was not legal in Ireland at this time divorce was recognised across the water in the UK; the subsequent court case gave rise to much drama and gossip in the press as it included tales of Mrs Bishop committing adultery with a neighbour who lived in number 72 Merrion Square, a highly respected surgeon named Dr. McArdle.

It must have been extremely difficult for both parties to have their private lives and marriage breakdown made so public. The petition made newspapers as far away as New Zealand, had the Bishop of Dublin pleading with the press to show restraint and not publish any details for fear of corrupting the minds of the paper’s readers, there were tales of late night card games, drunken shenanigans and spying maid girls.

One could compare the gossip and talk that this divorce generated with the hours of endless entertainment that the contestants of Love Island create each year.

The divorce was not granted as the jury failed to reach a verdict; and even just that brings home how difficult it was to obtain a divorce, your barrister had to convince a jury of twelve men, needless to say no females were allowed on the jury as they did not even have the right to vote in 1911.

So the Bishops wrote a legal deed of separation and then Ethel moved out of their house on Merrion Square and embarked on a tour taking rooms at a number of grand hotels in the British Isles; the Imperial Hotel in Dublin, the North British Hotel in Glasgow and the railway hotel in Belfast to name but a few.

Here in Ireland there was a recent serious criminal court case that generated much newspaper columns and Twitter debate; every single part of the defendants life was exposed and examined at length by both the jury and the press, it must have been so difficult for both Shenstone and Ethel to have their private lives talked about so publicly with such glee and amusement. And then after all that their petition was denied. The married couple must have really disliked each other in other to subject themselves to such public scrutiny and ridicule.


Ethel then flaunted her new beau in these grand hotels as she had intended to be seen. According to University of Guelph History professor Kevin James:

“This was frequently the purpose of such hotel visits: under the law (which in Ireland was especially restrictive), proof of adultery was often the surest way to obtain a divorce.

Hotels were places where every flourish of the guest’s pen and every dining room foray might corroborate the facts of an illicit assignation, produce incontrovertible evidence for the courts, and free husband and wife from the shackles of a loveless marriage.”

And it looks like it worked; a Bill intituled an Act to dissolve the marriage of Shenstone John Bishop, of 20, Merrion Square, in the City of Dublin, Surgeon-Dentist, with Ethel Mally Bishop in August 1912. Shenstone wasted no time and he proceeded to marry Elizabeth Pemberton, from The Hollies, Killiney Co Dublin in 1912. He died eight years later, March 1920, at his home The Barn in Foxrock from pneumonia.

It is highly probable that Elizabeth Pemberton is the same Lily Pemberton who was a visitor to the Hydro with Shenstone and his daughter in 1911; we can see that both sides in the marriage did not hesitate to flaunt their romantic indiscretions in public.

Back in 1901 Elizabeth, known as Lily, was living at home with her family in Killiney. Elizabeth’s father Henry was a successful builder who was responsible for the construction of a number of buildings in Kiliney including the Town Hall.

Ethel and Shenstone’s daughter, also Ethel, married at age eighteen in Marylbone to a Welsh man, Trefor Ap Simon; they would have one child Beryl who died in 2002. She had no children, her husband was killed in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and she never remarried. As far as I can tell there are no descendants living today of Shenstone and Ethel.

We have come a long way in Ireland; here we are over one hundred years later and women have the right to vote, to take their place on a jury of their peers and we now have the right to a legal divorce.

So please make good your right to vote and vote!


#cork #ireland #discoverireland #DivorceRef #IrishHistory #IrishFamilyHistory #Blarney #votail100